Physical Fitness and Chess

Last week’s question was: ‘How many Quality Chess books do you have, and do you have more paperbacks or more hardcovers?’ You can see the verdict below. There are many ways to interpret it, but many of you buy many books (thanks!). Also, if you buy more books, it becomes more likely you will go for hardcovers. Or put another way, if you have fewer than 10 books, they will probably be paperbacks.


This week, I have been thinking about how significant physical fitness is to chess performance. In the office, we have a range of levels of physical activity. Andrew must be fittest, with his Jiu Jitsu and regular gym training, but Jacob is also highly active, with lots of hours of tennis. My approach is more take-a-healthy-walk, get-a-good-night’s-sleep, and don’t drink too much the night before a game. I suspect even my low-key approach puts me in the healthier half of British chess players – British chess is a boozy culture, with Saturday-night drinking sessions at the 4ncl often lasting until 4 or 5 in the morning. Or so I’m told.

But what’s your approach? How important do you think physical fitness is to your chess performance? With my question and answers, I realise I am dealing with two different topics – how important you think physical fitness is, and what you actually do about it. But as ever, you can explain all in comments.

37 thoughts on “Physical Fitness and Chess”

  1. The Tal workout for chess fitness is probably not to be recommended. Wondered if he would the much shorter time controls and no adjournments of today would hinder or help him compared to the era c. 1960 when he was at his prime. Nevertheless I’ve seen talented chess players wipe the board with sober opponents despite being unable to speak clearly. Reminds me of fiddle players- unable to stand but can play a tune that I would never be able to approach with a lifetime’s practice.

  2. ‘Drinking sessions at the 4ncl often lasting until 4 or 5 in the morning. Or so I’m told.

    Not many with wife & kids then.

    Wife and kids have had a seriously negative impact on my chess!
    But s positive impact on the rest of my life ?

  3. @The Doctor
    On the contrary, lots with wife and kids to get back to Sunday night…

    I voted “other”. I generally believe that it does not make any big difference, but I also work out regularly. So, I think John framed the question poorly. I do sports to be healthy and happy, not to play better chess. Actually, the more sport I do, the worse my chess gets (as I am not training seriously myself anymore).

  4. I have just ONE goal (requirement) when playing a (serious) chess game: being healthy, rested and sleep enough (not just 3-4 hours the night before). The other physical activities do not make any difference to me. That’s why I voted to: “Being rested and not hungover is enough”.

    BTW. I played chess tournament (really) drunk only ONCE in my life. After that I promised to myself that I will never do it again – playing chess or drinking – I have to choose before going to the tournament.

  5. It’s tough to take a position totally opposite Jacob, but I’m sure that fitness and nutrition are crucial for results. In fact I’d say that this is a bizarrely overlooked element of the game.

    When I exercise, I am more energetic, calmer, and focused. The same goes for when I eat chicken and sweet potato and broccoli for lunch instead of pizza or hotel hot dogs or the typical awful diarrhea people typically eat at chess tournaments (at least here in the US).

    Of course, exercise is no substitute for actual chess knowledge, but it makes a big, fat difference. Perhaps 50 elo points–the amount you might expect from blundering a little less, being a little more alert, calculating a little faster, etc.

    I appreciate that I could be wrong, but I am SO confident in my position.

  6. A famous story is about Kamsky, being out running early in the morning with his father. While stretching out he realised that a guy was standing on the other side of the tree, throwing up. It was Vladimir Kramnik on his way home from a night out, and that days opponent for Kamsky. Although I am sure that Kamsky’s physical preparation for the game was preferable, Kramnik still won the game.

  7. To sum up. I think physical fitness helps and I recommend it for quality of life. I also believe it is better for your chess than drinking! But I do not think that an hour spent in the gym is as important as an hour spent analysing your games. But if you choose both, you have made no mistake.

  8. When I was in New Zealand, I used to spend weekends tramping in the hills- 5-6 hrs walking a day, slowish pace and a great way to see a beautiful country. You learn concentration (the last couple of hours are very hard, generally gnarly descents over very rough ground where one wrong foot could mean a twisted ankle).

    On Tuesday nights in the club competitions (a strong club with 2 IMs, 3 FMs and several 2200+ players), I regularly found that in the 3rd-4th hour of a games I was gaining a lot of half-points or even full points from opponents (who had more understanding of chess than I will ever have) who were either starting to tire or not managing nerves well. As a result my rating was 200 points above what it was when I left England directly before and 300 points above what it was the year I played in Scotland upon my return. Then kids happened and chess playing stopped completely…

    One person’s story, but in my mind, the two are definitely linked. At the time I had an extremely well thumbed copy of Jacob’s Excelling at Chess, which was the book which did most for my chess results.

  9. @paddyirish
    I used to be really into this connection, but these days I just do not see it when I look at strong players. I do recommend it strongly, but I would not replace chess training with physical training. Remember, Van Wely has always been extremely fit, but according to rumours less keen on actual chess work. He had talent for 2700+ of course. But as with your case, it is just one case. My personal experience is that the best way to improve your concentration is by solving exercises. The best way to be happy is to be physically active.

  10. Jacob Aagaard :
    Although I am sure that Kamsky’s physical preparation for the game was preferable, Kramnik still won the game.

    In the nineties Kasky was stronger than Kramnik. In 1996 he lost against Karpov, but he was also in the PCA-qualifing-cycle. He beat Kramnik 4,5 : 1,5, Short 5,5 : 1,5 and lost to Anand in the final 4,5 : 6,5. If he had beaten Anand he would have played against both big “K”s.

  11. @Phil Collins
    In 1997 Kramnik was number one on the World Ranking list. In 1992 he was ahead of Kamsky as well.

    Kramnik always did badly in matches, with one notable exception. I am not sure that is an argument for anything…

  12. I think exercise is important to a degree. Look at the top 10 and name a player who is overweight or out of shape. I try to exercise daily, and I also do a somewhat physical job. And for my own personal play I play better after I have been exercising the week before. Until recently some of my best results were when I was taking Taekwondo for 1.5 hours 3 times a week, and working our 45 minutes on the days I wasn’t at the dojo. By the end of it I could run about a mile, do push ups, sit ups, frog jobs and my forms and not die.

    However this is why degree is important. I was burnt out for everything else. I was so tired after working all day and exercising, that chess was on the back burner. I now try to workout everyday for 30-45 minutes a day and study 4-6 hours per day. If you exercise to much it can drain the energy away and adversely effect you concentration and ability to absorb information.

  13. Kasparov is making à comeback against the world elite. He Will face nakamura, Caruana and so in an 18 rond blitt tournament.

  14. Kamsky was never stronger than Kramnik- even though he did win that match in 1994 (though Kramnik was only 19 at the time).
    As soon as Kramnik burst into the top FIDE list after his gold medal performance in Manila Olympiad in 1992 as a 17 year old he was already ranked ahead of Kamsky (Kamsky is older) and if anything the rating gap increased before kamsky retired and went into medicine.
    I still find it strange how much the wild child Kramnik so abruptly changed into turned into the conservative berlin defence and catalan player from 2000 onwards- he used to play much more wild openings in the 90s- lots of sicilians, his hack up of kasparov in the semi slav meran in Dos Hermanos 1996 and took on the Kings Indian main line head on as white. I guess his improved results in match and tournaments probably answer that question for me

  15. Of course physical fitness makes a difference for chess. Physical fitness means pumping blood ’round the body in a better way and since the brain uses 20% of all oxygen in the body the connection is absolutely clear. But so many other factors are at work so it is naturally also one of degree.
    It is definately not a replacement for knowledge and chess training but it is important for with which quality and for how long you can use what you know since its also clear that most mistakes happen when short of time or tired. If you think more focused, faster and dont get tired then youll obviously get better results than if you do not.!

    Its also clear that the best players in the world use fitness-training or oxygen-generating activities to keep in shape both on and off the board. Botvinnik recommended long walks out in nature every day for up to three weeks before important events. Fischer said he only engaged in tennis, swimming and others to keep in shape for the chess. Kasparov was physically active his entire career, Carlsen always does some type of activity and so on.
    But there are also many great players NOT known for being fit and some even unfit and unhealthy. So it all seems to be about the flow in your body – how well your blood flows and how much oxygen you can take in. For some, maybe just living is enough and for some maybe yoga or massage sometimes is enough to keep focused. But I cant help wondering what it would have done for some players to be healthy and…

  16. fit as regards their results…

    Disclaimer: These are my opinions and not facts despite the fact I sound very sure.

  17. The young Kramnik was pretty overweight, but he got into extremely good physical condition for the Kasparov match. As for players being in or out of shape in the world’s top ten, let’s go to #11 and include Anand. (Especially since he was in the top 10, even the top 5 until a couple of bad results this year.) He has a typical middle-aged spread, and who knows? It might have cost him in the various endings where he underperformed against Carlsen in their two title matches.

  18. An Ordinary Chessplayer

    I was going to write a long comment yesterday but deleted it. Today I find that everything I might have tried to cover has already been discussed.

    Fitness reminds me of the ironic comment about self-esteem: “It’s only important for those who don’t have it.”

    For what it’s worth, Nimzowitsch’s “My System” was named in honor of a book of exercises by one Mueller, also titled “My System”. Nimzowitsch credited these fitness exercises with making him a top-class player. Before that, he was just incredibly talented. (This is also the answer to the frequent criticism of “My System” that it isn’t really a system. Which “criticism” just shows that the reviewer hasn’t read much Nimzowitsch.)

  19. Johnnyboy :
    Kamsky was never stronger than Kramnik- even though he did win that match in 1994 (though Kramnik was only 19 at the time).

    Kamsky vs Kramnik: +4 -2 =10

    In 1994 Kamsky was 20. He won Tilburg ahead of Ivanchuk and Gelfand when he was 16.
    In 1990 he was rated 2650, ranked number 8 in World Ranking list without a Grandmaster title.

    Jacob Aagaard :
    @Phil Collins
    In 1997 Kramnik was number one on the World Ranking list. In 1992 he was ahead of Kamsky as well.

    Kamsky stopped playing chess in 1996 after his defeat against Karpov.

    Interview with Kamsky

  20. As I’m disabled with two chronical diseases and I have my personal methods of measuring the state of affairs I know the importance of health (and fitness) very well.

    A second point is turning the question: What could you do to your, to make your chess worse? There are some simple well working answers, having to do with drugs, sleep, weight, eating, stress management, …

  21. If we count the heavy drinkers among the top grandmasters of the past (Alekhine, Tal, Geller, Holmov, Stein, just to name a view), statistics seem to prove that this is exactly the thing to.

  22. @Dennis M
    Rubbish! Anand was getting more and more unfit from 2000 till 2013, which was his peak period. But he showed up 20 kg or so lighter for the match in 2013 and in great physical shape.

    About making mistakes. Most blunders are made in worse positions. Getting badly out of the opening is a bigger problem at GM level than fitness.

    I think it helps, it certainly does not hurt, but any big effect has not been demonstrated. These days it is normal for people who are high-achievers in any field to pay more attention to diet and exercise. It did not use to be like this. It so happens that our World Champion loves sports. But Karpov at his peak was desperately unhealthy and his main competitor, Korchnoi, was a smoker, drinker and so on. Tal anyone! His career was constantly obstructed by hospital visits, but despite morphine addiction, heavy drinking and failing inner organs, he was still one of the best players in the World 25 years after he lost the title.

    I am sure that everyone agrees that smoking is potentially a liability for a chess player, but nothing special. But of the top players in the World, we have very few smokers. Kramnik has been on and off on the fags. Some of the Azerbaijani players smoke and basically all of them look unfit. The Chinese players smoke, some of them. Bacrot at no. 40 has smoked and might still do.

    Basically, I think we are looking at correlation and cultural influences. In modern Western/Global…

  23. culture, smoking is uncool. High achievers don’t do it. In China and Azerbaijan, indulgence is socially acceptable, so this is where you find the smokers, in general. I think we will find less and less Chinese smokers in the chess top as they play more international tournaments and socialise more with other players. People conform.

    My main point is that you can be very physically fit and unable to win rook and bishop vs. rook (Caruana), or physically unfit and know it by heart. I know which one would fare better in that scenario. Would you get there is a more complex question.

  24. Recently the 51 year old Kiril Georgiev won the Karpos Open by winning the last round with black against Svetushkin, the tournament leader. A morning round which lasted 40 moves where both players had less then a minute before making the time control.

    My point is the Georgiev looks far from being fit, (just look at his beer belly) and still managed to win this strong tournament with fighting chess.

  25. @Johnnyboy
    I remember going to a book signing by Kramnik in London 1999/2000 when Kramnik was there checking details before the WC match with Kasparov and I was amazed how Kramnik had just completely changed his appearance looking much leaner , better dressed an more neatly groomed then he had ever been before. It showed how he was out to take his chance even though before then he actually had a bad set of scores in matches up till then for some one of his Elo.

  26. NOT a very good player

    I can’t remember exactly where I read it online, but there was an interview with some leading figure who was reminiscing over the difference in lifestyles between the players of the soviet era of chess dominance and players nowadays. The person stated that they had many good stories about the drinking and generally unhealthy lifestyles of players such as Petrosian and many others.
    IMHO I think that fitness for the elite has become more of an issue because of the gargantuan amount of theory they are expected to keep up with mainly due to the influence of computers. There seems to be more memory work involved in chess than earlier times (however Carlsen’s rise has had a positive impact on turning this around somewhat in that he seems less dependent on opening theory and computers than players five years ago. I remember before Carlsen people were fearing the death of classical chess because of the computer arms race).
    For mere mortals like myself I think a good rest is enough.I agree somewhat with Korchnoi’s statement that “chess you don’t learn.Chess you understand.”For average me its much more rewarding to understand the concepts rather than learning boring variations.All the exercise in the world will not improve my chess ability but being healthier may improve my decision making process slightly.

  27. I think this is incorrect. Openings were always very important. But now the information is easy to access, easy to gather and easy to work on.

    I agree more with Spassky: Korchnoi is best at everything and only lacks talent for the game 😉

  28. NOT a very good player

    Any chance of you folks doing a comprehensive collection of spassky’s games? It’s criminal that there is no good book available on the market as he is a brilliant player. I agree that openings have always been important I was just comparing now with then.
    Spassky’s comment is funny and maybe I’m over-influenced by korchnoi.Those chessbase dvds he did are my favourites( lost count of how many times I have seen them). It was korchnoi’s ruminating over the difficulty of finding new ideas in the openings along with reading somewhere that a second of Topalov was complaining that it was harder to find new ideas that led me to write the above comment.
    my ID is not an attempt at modesty.It’s true! I am not a good player and know very little. I just think Carlsen has revitalised the scene somewhat in that just before his rise people like Giddens were proclaiming the death of chess during the Gelfand Anand WCC match.

  29. I totally agree with Jacob. Would love to say that being fit has a very positive impact on your chess performance but this definitely does not apply to me. Maybe it can be divided into two scenarios:

    1. When playing one game per day, I could imagine that the physically fit may have an advantage at the end of the game. I have noticed that quite a few relatively strong but unfit opponents have blundered after 4 hours of play without being in time-trouble.
    2. For events with two games per day or rapid tournaments where you just play for hours and hours, I am not sure that it is an advantage to be physically fit. I think it is much more important to be “chess fit”; that is, that you are used to chess events where you perhaps play for 10+ hours for some days. For item 1, the “chess fit” will also be able to concentrate in the 5th hour of play.

    So we have:

    1. Chess fit and physically fit
    2. Chess fit but not physically fit
    3. Physically fit but not chess fit
    4. Neither physically fit nor chess fit

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top